(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...hasamei'ach b'chelko, being happy with one's portion....
(Leviticus 10:3) ...vayidom aharon; [After two of his sons died when they offered "strange fire"] Aaron was silent.
In my professional life, I see people in all sorts of happiness and distress. Not only am I privileged to share transitional moments in their lives – birth and naming, educational milestones, weddings and anniversaries, separations and bereavements – but also many personal, private moments that cause a person to take stock of his or her life. Sometimes, people come with good news to share; other times, they arrive bearing a burden. And frequently, a question arises that has long been academic and now presses with unrelenting urgency.
It took me a long time to learn to take myself out of their equation. In order to be present for someone, my attention and focus must be on his or her experience, not how I might respond to a similar challenge, or what impact it may have on me. (By the way, though it is hard work to achieve such a state of mind, it is well worth it for anyone who hopes to be friend or advisor.)
However, I have developed my own "spiritual practice" after such encounters that, for lack of a less clichéd term, is counting my blessings. In a different teaching in Avot (4:1), Ben Zoma asks and answers, "Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his/her portion." I find that lesson very meaningful, and I have become habituated to conducting a sort of personal inventory on a regular basis. And though it may sound morbid, I often consider, in those reflective moments, if I would have cause to complain if my bounty were to suddenly end, God forbid. From this position of comfort and blessing, my answer seems clear: every moment that my current lot in life persists is a bonus, a portion undeserved.
We all have known sadness and despair. Fortunately, few among us have known the kind of crushing blow suffered by Aaron the High Priest. On the day he and his four sons were consecrated to the first priesthood of Israel, two of the sons somehow ran afoul of the sacred restrictions and died in a flash. On the day of his great accomplishment, the day the Israelites' relationship with God was formalized through him and his children, personal tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions invaded his joy.
Torah gives us no insight into Aaron's heart at that moment. We have only two Hebrew words, meaning, "Aaron was silent." The verse almost dares us to crawl into Aaron's skin and put ourselves in his place. Was he angry with his sons? Was he furious with God? Was he numb? Did he suffer a crisis of faith? These and other questions race through our minds, but one question does not: Was he happy with his portion? Such a question seems obscene in the moment.
When I was in college in 1972, the State of Israel was attacked by its murderously hostile neighbors on Yom Kippur. The days and weeks that followed were frightening and exhausting as we watched the tide of the battles shift one way and then another. In the midst of the fighting, the calendar demanded we celebrate Sukkot and its attached holidays for nine days. The entire week was a struggle, and then we all realized that the joyous day of Simchat Torah waited at the end.
Rabbi David Lincoln was the leader of our congregation, and he delivered a sermon that has stayed with me for more than thirty years. Preparing us for our observance, he quoted Deuteronomy 16:15: v'hayyita akh samei'ach, "you shall be only happy." He said that the Torah recognized that there would be times in our lives when our troubles might threaten to overwhelm us, and that individually or collectively we might not be in the mood to rejoice in the bigger picture of God's beneficence. But just as it was important to be sad at the appropriate moments, it was also important to be happy at the appropriate moments. For that reason, the word akh, "only," is included in the verse. The commandment about the festival was not just to be happy. Rather, it was to be ONLY happy.
We mustered our enthusiasm the next day and rejoiced in the Torah. The day of the sermon was the holiday of Sh'mini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Assembly). More than thirty years later, that Torah lesson becomes relevant as I consider the portion Sh'mini (meaning "the eighth day") and the context of the Israelites assembling in Aaron's tragic presence. His silence on the day and through the ages is not just a verse, but also a lesson: the Israelites were to be happy with their portion, not diminished by his loss. There would be opportunity for grieving and comfort in its time.
This lesson is intuitive when the situation is reversed – individual or temporal joy is regularly postponed out of respect for communal sadness. But if we value blessings as much as we respect loss, then some silent reflection in the face of the heartbreaking choices between them we must sometimes make will help us acquire a path through Torah.
How can one learn to be hasamei'ach b'chelko? Hokey though it may sound, count your blessings. And hard as it may be, do not balance that inventory with the inevitable complaints we all have about our lives. Then, choose one small satisfaction and seek it out – in reality or in your mind – and plumb the depths of the joy it brings you. Then, tomorrow or next week, do it again.